Faculty Spotlight: Jo Knowles

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Award-winning author and Mountainview MFA Faculty Jo Knowles has written several popular YA novels, including Lessons from a Dead Girl, Jumping Off Swings, and Read Between the Lines. Her newest book, Where The Heart Is, is set to be published in April 2019. She took time out from her hectic schedule to answer a few questions about her childhood, her career, and what motivates her.

—WL

You wrote that you grew up in a small NH town complete with all the trappings of farm life: dogs and cats, a chicken or two, horses, and a beloved pony (and here, being a city kid myself, I’m also imagining checkered tablecloths and sweat-filled pitchers of iced tea, very-early mornings and muddy boots by the backdoor). How do you think growing up in that environment affected your outlook and your writing?

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JK— When you describe it this way, my life sounds so quaint! I guess in some ways it was. But underneath that, there was a lot of financial instability. The muddy boots were not fancy ones from LL Bean but most likely hand-me-downs times three. My parents ran a restaurant when I was young and it seemed they were always working and struggling to make a go of it. Then, there were various other business ventures my dad tried that didn't always pan out. As a quiet kid who observed and absorbed just about everything, I took on the worries of the people I loved. I don't know that what appears to be a simple life ever really is.

 

You decided pretty early on that YA (young adult) literature was the genre that most interested you. What was it about YA you found so appealing?

JK— Of all the literature I read, I find YA the most honest. I like words that bite and challenge and tell the truth. Realistic fiction for young adults is probably the most brave I've read. I also think it changes the most lives. I know it changed mine for the better. The books I read as a teen helped me be more thoughtful, have empathy for others, think more about people outside my own small world, and consider how to live more kindly and with more purpose.

How are you able to get into the minds of teens, both male and female, so convincingly?

JK— That feels like a heady question to answer. I try hard to be honest--as honest as the books that moved me as a teen were. That's the key, I think.

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Your first book, Lessons From a Dead Girl, the story about a challenging and somewhat fraught friendship, was published in 2007. How long did it take you to finish, from idea to completion, and what are some of the lessons you picked up along the way?

JK— It's been so long I'm not sure how long it took, but I'm going to guess it was several years from the start to the completion and sale. One editor who showed interested asked for revisions and provided encouragement over a two-year period, but ultimately she passed. There was a similar time table with the editor who ultimately bought the book and published it. So yes. SEVERAL years. But I learned a lot about revision in this process. I learned how to work with an editor, to process feedback in a way that kept the book "mine" even when massive changes were required.


Your books, filled with humor and pathos, explore some intense subject matters: abusive friendships, eating disorders, unwanted pregnancies, and more. How do you navigate these complex issues and distill them for your core audience of teens and pre-teens? Or is age even something you consider?

JK— I really don't think about the age of my readers. My goal is to tell a story as honestly as possible. Awful things happen to kids of all ages, yet until fairly recently, books for younger readers rarely reflected that reality. The real world is far, far more cruel than the world of fiction.

As both an established author and writing teacher, is there one mistake or area for improvement you see consistently in new writers that you would like to caution them on?

JK— I think sometimes people get ahead of themselves and get publishing on the brain before doing the necessary hard work. Like any fine craft, it can takes years to learn to write well and find your own unique voice. Subbing to agents for a six months is nothing. It's not unusual for 5-10 years to pass before a first sale! But I've seen so many students give up after sending things out for just a few months. This is a tough business and the only way to succeed is to keep working—whether that means revising and rewriting, or starting new projects while subbing out a current work. Always be writing and creating. When you need a writing break, read a ton, learn, get inspired, and get back to it.

Who are some authors who have inspired you?

JK— The most influential author in my early days was Robert Cormier. His books were achingly true. They made me feel less alone. He seemed to know and not be afraid of telling his readers what life was really like.

You’re a best-selling author, adored by young readers , so it’s obvious you’ve found your calling, but in a parallel universe somewhere, what would a Jo Knowles be doing if she had taken a different path?

JK— Haha. I love that you have such a view of my "success." I don't think I've ever seen myself that way! Someone asked me recently what the perfect life looked like and I guess I don’t really believe in perfection that way. I try instead to be grateful for the people in my life, the opportunities I have to do good work  (whether that's speaking with kids and hopefully inspiring them to be their best selves and help shape a better world for themselves, doing volunteer work, or writing stories I hope will resonate with kids who need them). I hope that in a parallel universe, I'm essentially doing the same thing, even if via a different approach.

credit: Twin State Derby/Lazy Lobo Photo

credit: Twin State Derby/Lazy Lobo Photo

Okay—and thank you for doing this—one last thing I just have to ask: Roller Derby?

JK— Yup!



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Thanks, Jo! And be sure to pick up her much-anticipated novel Where the Heart Is, on sale April 2, 2019.

BOOKS


Still A Work In Progress by Jo Knowles

Review by Daniel Charles Ross 

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One of the hit film releases of late summer so far has been "Eighth Grade," a look back at what tumult kids experience in middle school on the foggy horizon of adulthood. This motivated me to look back at our own Jo Knowles' most-recent novel "Still A Work In Progress" which, natch, occurs in middle school.

     I was privileged to read an Advance Reader Copy of this book in July 2016, and I'm acquainted with Jo Knowles from the Mountainview MFA program. Frankly, none of this disclosure holds any special meaning at all, because "Still A Work In Progress" was an extraordinary glimpse into the minds, the lives, and the very existence of middle schoolers whether I liked it or not.

     Jo Knowles knows kids. She knows their likes, their loves, their terrors, and even their simple irritations. She knows how parents are sometimes left dumbfounded by family events that overtake them, and that all families matter but all families are not, in fact, created equal.

     In her book, main character Noah tries to navigate 8th grade in much the same way a space alien would navigate Times Square, sometimes lost, sometimes befuddled. Middle school is confusing in all respects except when he's in art class, where he excels. Girls are weird but strangely compelling, and schoolmates are sometimes nuttier'n a junkyard dog. Well meaning, of course, but made crazy by–what else?–girls.

     Without spoiling anything, it's safe to say Noah's older sister, Emma, is hobbled by a recurrent problem that embroils the entire family. It's during this time that Noah realizes how important his sister is to him, and how unimportant are the other distractions in his world.

     What is perhaps most engaging about this story is the compassion Jo exhibits through her characters. The strengths are paradoxical: Noah is strong, his father is weak (as a dad myownself, I was frankly dismayed by Noah's dad's behavior. Don't @ me), and mom is somewhere in the middle. Noah is a success, generally, but his sister is a failure at controlling her debilitating, self-imposed problem. Some of Noah's classmates are mature in relationships; some of his teachers in the small school are friends; and there is a hairless cat mascot roaming around as if it owns the place, because, evidently, it does.

     Middle-school gold.

     There is laugh-out-loud humor and watery-eyed pathos. There are kids we all went to middle school with and some we wish we had. The story is less a novel than a time machine, and one size fits all.

     I have high confidence that middle schoolers will read this evergreen story with recognition (and a little dismay)–as adults will, too. If "Still A Work In Progress" fairly represents the state of middle school today, it hasn't changed much since I was in 8th grade. That makes for a compelling, page-turning story of extraordinary and universal meaning for everyone. 
 

Five stars: One for anyone facing the blank page. One for characters we recognize and embrace as ourselves. One for a descriptive and sensitive deep dive into rarely seen family dynamics and the effect they have on our children. One for the hairless cat as the quirky  kind of character you just don't see every day. And one for a Jo Knowles canon that has six other works just as good.

Strongly, unequivocally recommended.


Daniel Charles Ross—DCR—was a Mountainview MFA student in 2015. The thriller that was to be his thesis, Force No One, comes out in the fall.

RESIDENCY RECOLLECTIONS


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There are no days more full than those we go back to. ― Colum McCann

Jemiscoe Chambers-Black—For many of us, the week-long residency at the Mountain View Grand Hotel in Whitefield, NH is something that we cherish. It’s a magical place, a retreat, where like-minds enjoy being away from the pressures of adulting, and rather, focus on nothing but their stories. Because we feel so strongly about our time together, we here at Assignment decided to ask some of the current MFA Candidates, the alumni and faculty what they missed, learned and loved about past residencies.

After attending three residencies, I can say with certainty that what I’ll miss most after my fourth residency week in January are the people. I’ll miss leaving the rest of the world behind to spend a week in the company of writers, people who intrinsically understand the challenges and rewards of practicing the craft of writing. I’ll miss the opportunity to dig deep into short stories in morning workshops. I’ll miss the chance to learn together from visiting agents and editors. I’ll miss the student and faculty readings. I’ll miss it all, but the community fostered by the staff and faculty—and my fellow learners—rests at the heart of what I love most about residency. ~ Margaret McNelis

My favorite moment of every residency is the Friday night slideshow. I’m always touched by the photos of students learning, writing, sharing, and enjoying each other’s company. The thoughtfulness and joy on everyone’s faces reflect the magic of residency. You can see the shift in photos taken early on in the week, to those taken toward the end. Friendships have been made. Confidences have grown. Dreams have been born. And cohort bonds have all become stronger. Plus, there’s always at least one cute alpaca pic. ~ Jo Knowles, Faculty

My family called my first week of residency, worried I’d careened off a mountain on my drive up after they didn’t hear from me for days. I told them I’d found my people. I couldn’t remember going to any other gathering where everyone else was just as passionate about the same thing as me. It just felt right. ~ Eric Beebe

The Mountain View is dead quiet at 4am. We walk the silent halls, my coffee cup is stained purple with red wine and his smells of cinnamon whiskey. We pause in front of a painting of hunting dogs.
       “It’s weird how every floor has the same pictures,” I say. 
       “They’re not exactly the same,” he says. “The painting on the second floor has twelve dogs. This one has eleven.”
       We rush down the stairs.
       “See," I say, not sure if I'm victorious or disappointed. "Eleven." ~ Sarah Foil

When I think about the four residencies I attended, the thing that sticks out most vividly is the mornings: 28 in total. Leaning over to the personal-size coffee maker (that I brought to every Residency) on the nightstand, flicking it on, and slowly coming to and watching the light slink across the walls and ceiling while my favorite coffee from home-brewed, making my room smell like morning. Then, sipping the dark roast with a billow of half and half, gazing out the windows at the sunshine-yellow clapboards of the Mountain View Grand, and around the room, which I set up just how I like it, reviewing the day’s schedule. Each morning, the cusp of bringing new learning into my mind and spirit. Each morning, looking forward to strengthening friendships with other writers. Each morning, giving myself permission to take my writing as seriously as everyone else already did. ~ Shawna-Lee I. Perrin

My favorite memories from Residency all center on how we, as colleagues, pushed one another to continuously perfect our writing and to hone our work into stories that deserved to be read. One semester, after having my piece workshopped, a colleague approached me for a personal discussion of the work.
       “How do you come up with such creepy material?” she asked.
       “I have no idea,” I said. “But I’m glad it made you feel creeped out. It was supposed to.”
       “I was creeped out,” she said, “but it was the wrong kind of creeped out. It was the I-don’t-want-to-read-this-anymore creeped out, not the wow-this-is-wrong-that-I-enjoy-this-stuff kind of creeped out. If you want to hold your readers’ attention, work on making your material more subtle and more complex.”
       Every word I’ve written in the almost two years since have been filtered through this piece of advice. ~ John Will

One special pleasure was the peer workshop group I shared with Lydia Peele. It was a mix of nice personalities and uniformly strong manuscripts. All such workshops provide to their leaders a mix of don't-do-that and yes-do-this in the storytelling, and it was great fun, over and over again, to find so many beguiling examples of yes-do-this. ~ Richard Adam Carey, Faculty

I call the top moments in my life: "Patronus moments." It's lame and nerdy as hell, but I think of them whenever I'm really sad and I need the extra boost of remembering a better time. Expecto Patronum is actually Latin for "bring out my protector," so it felt appropriate both for me and the other characters in the Harry Potter universe. These moments include bid day in my sorority, when I got my littles, my time in Budapest, the Twenty One Pilots concert, Leadershape, and now: residency.
      I'd cried for an hour when I first got the letter from Lisa telling me that I'd been accepted into the program. I don't have the words to explain the amount of shock and gratitude I felt, but I knew it was one of those rare moments where I'd get a taste of what it means to finish first. Residency exceeded any possible expectations I could've dreamed of and more. I'm surrounded by a group of wonderful, inspiring, dynamic people who all share a love of what matters most to me: writing. It's such a wonderful program, and I couldn't possibly praise it enough. At least I'll have the next two years to try. ~ Morgan Green

Every time I return home from a residency, I miss that insular feeling of being holed up 24/7 with other writers and lovers of books. I relish forgetting about the rest of the world, even as we think and write about our concerns for its fate. I love the deep immersion, the thinking and talking only about our craft. What a gift that is. And really, now that I've experienced it first as a student, then as faculty, I can say it is a necessity. ~ Amy Irvine, Faculty

Strangely, what I liked most and what I liked least about Residency are the same thing: Peer Review. It was painful. Being the newest of the bunch, I was scheduled at the end of the week, so I could get acclimated before entering “the box.” I’d come to the program because I needed help with my writing; I was stuck, but couldn’t figure out why. As I participated in my classmate’s peer reviews, something in my mind began to gel until I realized what I was stuck on. I write a great nonfiction landscape, but it’s just that—a landscape. It’s sterile and devoid of emotion because even though I’m in the story, I’m absent. I write around me rather than in me. When my turn in “the box” came, my mentors and peers were wonderful, and the overall theme was that my story was missing in my writing. I realized that either I needed to open up and expose myself and my family, or I needed to switch to fiction. I was overwhelmed with the fear of being vulnerable. When I came out of “the box,” I didn’t think anyone was more surprised than me when I started crying and couldn’t stop. It was a painful experience, but it was also a week of growth and insight. And as scary as it is, I’m sticking with nonfiction. ~ Debi St. Jeor

Faculty Picks: Sartre, Gyasi, Kurtén

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Richard Adams Carey-- Jean-Paul Sartre’s eerie first novel, Nausea, published in 1938, could not be described as plot driven. Action? Well, protagonist Antoine Roquentin is a writer (and a loner) struggling to finish a biography of minor 18th century politician, to rekindle a romance with a former lover, and to resist the blandishments of a lonely autodidact who will be revealed to be a pedophile.

The real action is all within. Roquentin’s primary adversary is something that might be viewed as depression, but for Sartre it’s an especially clear-eyed grasp of the human condition. Trivial moments and objects are described in revelatory detail, in passages that ring with both their beauty and the hollowness glimpsed at their core. The result for Roquentin is a sense of nausea that “spreads at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of our time—the time of purple suspenders and broken chair seats; it is made of wide, soft instants, spreading at the edge, like an oil stain.”

The novel is written in diary form, and its final sentence—“Tomorrow it will rain in Bouville”—is life-affirming in the sense that at least there will be a tomorrow. Sartre’s hero endures, and if we could read his description of that rain, the imagery would be stunning.

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Jo Knowles-- I recently read and loved Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf, 2016). It's a riveting historical novel that follows the descendants of two sisters born on the Gold Coast of Africa who were separated by slavery, and the horrors that follow for generations, both in Africa and in America. The plotting, the characterization, the deep emotional punch every chapter packs is remarkable. Each chapter reads not so much like a short-story but a novella, and by the end of each, you feel cheated by having to leave the character you've just come to care deeply about. It's a masterful novel that explores the development of institutional racism and the deep and lasting impact of slavery that much of America still has not fully grasped.

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Craig Childs-- I was asked what I’d read last. Having just finished writing two books in the past few weeks I thought, do I even read books anymore?

Then I remembered my research. Towers of it. The last book was Pleistocene Mammals of North America by the eminent, late paleontologist Björn Kurtén and his late co-author, born in Leadville, Colorado, osteologist Elaine Anderson, a dear friend who worked an Ice Age field camp with me in the 90s.

Printed in 1980, Pleistocene Mammals remains the hardcover manual on the general distribution, habitat, and fossil specifications for Ice Age animals, or anything else to live on this continent in the last couple million years. The drawings of teeth and jaws, jumping mice and mammoths, are simple, clean, and scientific. The language is often clinical, “the posterior mandibular foramen is larger than the anterior...”

But it’s a book that tells you something, a sort of time machine. You pass through pages showing ranges of sabertooth cats and Ice Age seals, and a world is reborn.

To write, you are not just in your own head, not just reading as a lark. Reading becomes solid work. You have to learn different ways stories can be told. Call it research, or world-building, this is where the good stuff is.

Faculty Picks: Thien, Shepard, Bellow

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Robin Wasserman-- I've spent my summer lurking in Parisian cafes, drinking infuriatingly tiny cups of so-called coffee and trying not to feel like too much of a cliche when I pull out my journal and surreptitiously scrawl down some profound thought. (Said profundity slightly limited by the aforementioned caffeine shortage.) I'm a promiscuous but loyal customer: one cafe for writing, one cafe for critiquing student work, one cafe for hot chocolate, and one cafe, in the shadow of my favorite Parisian church (and, conveniently, favorite Parisian crepe stand), for reading. The last one is obviously the best one, but it's upped the stakes a bit: A book has to be pretty great to distract me from the wafting scent of nutella. Fortunately, I had Madeline Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing, one of the most absorbing and ambitious novels I've read this year. A story within a story within a story about the Cultural Revolution and the struggle of art and artists to survive in the face of oppression, Thien's book is brutally beautiful and a reminder that making art is both a privilege and a necessity.

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Justin Taylor-- This September Tin House will publish Jim Shepard’s first collection of nonfiction, The Tunnel at the End of the Light: Essays on Movies and Politics. Shepard’s cinephilia has been well-represented in his fiction (cf. his stories “Gojira, King of the Monsters”, “Boys Town”, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, his novel Nosferatu) so it’s a treat to read his wonkish and acerbic takes on the classics: “Badlands, and the ‘Innocence’ of American Innocence”, “Fool me Twice, Shame on Me: Saving Private Ryan and the Politics of Deception.” The essays first appeared in The Believer in the early and mid aughts, so the “politics” of the subhead largely concern the depravities of the second Bush administration, which periodizes the book but hardly dates it. Indeed, Shepard’s meditations on “the power and resilience of the lies we tell ourselves as a collective” have grown—if anything—even more dispiritingly prescient than they were a decade ago. I was going to say this is all less grim than it sounds, but it isn’t. What it is is smart, earnest, and unsparing. 

For nonfiction students in particular, these essays are a solid model for a certain kind of personal-critical essay that puts engagement with a published work of art at its center but is not a "review" of the work in question. And for all Mountainview students, the essays have much to teach in terms of how to approach your close reading assignments and craft papers. Though the essays are polemical and make no pretense of "objectivity" (why would they? how could they? they're framed as persuasive arguments) Shepard is a rigorous of reader of texts--which in this case happen to be films and not books, but the point is the same. He is meticulous in his inspection of the material, noting craft elements like camera angles and minutes of screen time for a given character the way you might keep track of point of view shifts or the page-lengths of a given scene. Once he understands what something is, it's only natural to ask how it got that way, and to explore whether--and why--it succeeds or fails on the terms it has set for itself. 

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Benjamin Nugent-- For years I’ve considered myself a short-story writer, and I have just this month discovered Saul Bellow’s short stories. This is like considering yourself a drummer, and then, after years on the road, finally getting around to checking out Led Zeppelin. Track after track, you go, “Wait, what?” First you are filled with joy. Then you are filled with shame.

Here’s the businessman protagonist of Bellow’s “A Silver Dish,” published in The New Yorker in 1978:

"Woody, now sixty, fleshy and big, like a figure for the victory of American materialism, sunk in his lounge chair, the leather of its armrests softer to his fingertips than a woman’s skin, was puzzled and, in his depths, disturbed by certain blots within him, blots of light in his brain, a blot combining pain and amusement in his breast (how did that get there?) Intense thought puckered the skin between his eyes with a strain bordering on headache."

We’re outside the guy, looking at him, and we’re also inside him, feeling what it’s like to be him, at more or less the same time. As a bonus, we’re considering his symbolic significance. (Bellow is interested in the fact that Woody looks “like a figure for the victory of American materialism” but he’s also determined to make Woody more than a figure, to make him flesh.) When you’re writing short, it helps to be able to dig into a character quickly, the way Led Zeppelin digs into a rhythm. Bellow does it fast.